They say ideas are a dime a dozen, even character ideas. Many experienced authors don’t even think about it anymore; they don’t remember when they were just starting out, facing a blank page, without any idea how to make their characters full and interesting. Because when it comes right down to it, if you want ideas for your fictional characters should be like, you can just look at the people around you. I tend to write down character ideas, as they occur to me, in an idea journal, which I can then go back to for inspiration when I’m when I’m writing a story. All authors at some level base their fictional characters on what they observe of real-life people.
But it takes more than just throwing character ideas at the page, if you want to end up with an actual story. Character ideas may give you zany and quirky, but if you want your characters to have depth, you have to make them feel like real, full-fledged people. In other words, you need characters that have a story to tell.
The image I chose to appear above for this post, that’s a special photo. I searched on Flickr and iStockPhoto, my standard sources, for photos of quirky and eccentric characters. Most of the interesting ones were just crazy-looking dudes with stupid hair or dorky glasses. But this particular photo stuck out at me, because I couldn’t help but ask myself, What is her story? Sitting in an ancient city; wearing a very short, wild, tasseled skirt; knock-out pretty, except for that look on her face; blue hair. What’s her obsession with wild blue? Who’s she sticking her tongue out at? What’s she waiting for, sitting on that wall? This character has a story to tell.
You don’t just want random, quirky characters. (Or if you do, you don’t need to be here. Just throw random character traits at them, and you’ll be fine.) You want characters who have a unique story to tell. And then you want to tell their story.
Find the story conflicts: where does the change happen? Without conflict, you don’t have a story; and without change (or at least the promise of change), you don’t have conflict. This is what turns a mere character sketch into a real story.
Look again at the photo above. Maybe this day, she’s going to meet someone who will change her life forever. Maybe she gets into a fight with a passerby, who unintentionally injures her severely, and she finds herself in a hospital bed in a struggle for her life, and with anger and forgiveness.
Ask deep questions about the character. Start with what the character needs and how he’s pursuing these needs, because perceived needs are the root of all character action. Then delve into the character’s past, his future, his social status, his job and hobbies, his religion, his family life, his sense of morality. And don’t just fling characteristics randomly onto the canvas (unless you want something that looks like a Rorschach test). Rather, seek to understand how each of these characteristics defines who he is.
The blue-haired girl in the photo, maybe she was never allowed any independence while she was growing up. Now, she works just enough to make ends meet, but otherwise, she’s seeking to find herself. She also has always felt looked down upon by society, and so she often acts out, as an alpha male, in an attempt to dominate those around her. Maybe she’s about to lose her job because she doesn’t get along with her coworkers. And so forth and so on.
How does character affect the story? Each person is going to respond a little differently to the same situation, based on his personality and his past experiences. In a gripping story, these responses will serve to intensify and resolve the story conflicts. A person’s also interact with each other, sometimes in very complex ways, and sometimes create new problems or generate behaviors that may seem extreme.
In the photo, maybe she stops at this spot every day at the same time, to mock innocent passersby, because she’s a rebel, independent, suppressed in childhood, now disdaining many social conventions, and this is how she makes herself feel better than everyone else. When one passerby decides to confront her, she refuses to back down, as does he, and confrontation eventually turns into violence.
Add quirks if you want, but add them judiciously. Anything that makes your character unique. Just remember that random quirks do not make a character deeper; they make him more shallow, because they displace deeper character traits. The more of your reader’s mental capacity you spend describing nonsensical characteristics, the less you have left to use for the stuff that really matters.
There are exceptions to the rule, such as the Kirk effect, from Gilmore Girls: it was said that if Amy Sherman-Palladino needed to liven up a scene of Gilmore Girls, all she had to do was add Kirk to the mix. Kirk had more quirks than anyone could remember; he made no sense, and so he was an extremely shallow character and completely useless as a driving character force. But everyone accepted that about him, and so he was always good for a laugh. You didn’t even have to make fun of him; he made fun of himself. All you had to do was to drop him into the scene and then shake your head in amazement.
In the photo, the blue hair and the dress she’s wearing are quirky. If she’s taunting passersby, those behaviors might also qualify. But of course, these are not just random quirks. They’re important, because…
Ask the 5 why’s. People may sometimes seem random, but very rarely is that the reality. They don’t wear certain clothes just because those clothes magically appeared in the closet; they’re trying to make a fashion statement. And they don’t show kindness or lash out at others randomly, either; even if subconsciously, they’re seeking to feel good about themselves. What do your character’s quirks tell you about him?
I already noted that the blue-haired girl in my story lashes out at those around her in an attempt to feel bigger than them. So what if the guy who injured her turns out to be wealthy, a prime target for a lawsuit. But instead of denying accountability, he pays all her hospital expenses, demands the best care for her, pays living expenses for her while she can’t work, and dotes over her so much that he begins to sicken her, because that makes him a much bigger person than she is?
So, there’s a brief example of how you can begin putting together a character, not as a mere collection of raw character ideas, but as a full-fledged, realistic person. The key is to go deep with the characteristics you uncover. Ask yourself the why’s and wherefore’s. And don’t ever accept that your character is just random or strange, because chances are, she makes perfect sense, if you try hard enough to understand her.